Amid the sprawl of the crime fiction genre, Tana French has mapped out a subcategory in which the detectives get emotionally involved in their cases and things blow up in their faces. In French's Ireland, just as in the real one, the cops may get their man, and they may not; a good yarn is a good yarn either way.
In The Likeness, just as in her first book, In the Woods, the particulars of an unusual murder draw a detective in so closely that solving the case becomes far trickier than the police might have imagined. Here, our heroine and narrator is Cassie Maddox, erstwhile partner of the last book's Detective Rob Ryan. In the aftermath of that book's harrowing events, Cassie is off the Murder squad and working Domestic Violence. (The traumatized Rob is out of the picture). But Cassie's old line of work beckons when the body of a young woman turns up – a woman who not only looks just like Cassie, but had adopted the identity of Lexie Madison, a fictional junkie Cassie had "played" during an undercover operation years before.
Cooking up a story that the victim actually survived her stabbing, Cassie's manipulative former Undercover boss convinces her (with the very reluctant OK of her Murder-squad boyfriend, the devoted Sam) to enter the bosom of the "Lexie"'s old life, specifically the academic circle of her eccentric housemates, and pretend to be the recovering victim while trying to suss out what happened to the murdered imposter.
Preposterous? Pretty much. But once we've bought in to the premise (and plowed through a rather too long set-up), French delivers a giddy, suspenseful ride. Is one of the housemates the killer, and if so, how much danger is Cassie in? What will happen if her cover is blown? What weird bond holds the housemates almost cultishly together? Might the killer be one of the locals, whose resentment of Whitethorn House and its owners goes back generations? Or could it be the disappointed relation who wished to inherit the house and turn the property into condos?
Real estate plays a significant role in the plots of both of French's mysteries to date, and that's not a coincidence. She's a keen observer of Ireland's dizzyingly rapid modernization and the painful conflicts that arise between traditional interests and those fueled by the country's economic boom.
Both books also delve into the complex psychology and procedure of police work.
The cold fact is that every murder I've worked was about the killer. The victim… was just the person who happened to wander into the sights when the gun was loaded and cocked. The control freak was always going to kill his wife the first time she refused to follow orders; your daughter happened to be the one who married him. The mugger was hanging around the alleyway with a knife, and your husband happened to be the next person who walked by… if we can figure out the exact point where someone walked into those crosshairs, we can go to work with our dark, stained geometries and draw a line straight back to the barrel of the gun.
Most readers, myself included, won't know enough about police work to tell whether all of Cassie's observations ring true, but French makes them feel real as rain. And she's good with noirish metaphors. "The words sent a slim knife of something like homesickness straight through me." "Lexie blew down the grass like a silver shower of wind, she rocked in the hawthorn trees and balanced light as a leaf on the wall beside me, she slipped along my shoulder and blazed down my back like fox fire." The dead Lexie, who wasn't even Lexie, comes to creepy life as brightly as any of the living characters in Cassie's intrigued and eventually obsessed mind.
But in spite of its unlikely plot, this is a more satisfying book than In the Woods (which you needn't read before this one, though it is enjoyable and would provide a bit of context). The Likeness has more richly drawn characters, a more satisfying conclusion, and most important, a more sympathetic and believably complex narrator. Maybe with Cassie Maddox the author has found her muse; maybe she'll move on to another lead investigator next time. Either way, she's raised her bar.